Botnets, Now What?

Just when I was becoming accustomed to using spyware removal tools and running the occasional Pitstop virus scan (few people keep their antivirus current these days), something new comes along.

Have you ever wondered why your machine seems like it’s operating in mud or is just ignoring you? Well that’s probably because it’s operating just fine for someone else. Yep, we’re talking Botnets. Botnets are using your CPU, draining your memory, just waiting to be told what to do by someone making money from your investment. You don’t mind do you?

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PC Pitstop Top 25 Spyware and Adware

PC Pitstop has long been a source of information about unwanted software and how it spreads. Now we’re using our test results database to give you weekly updates about which programs are the most prolific. The prevalence numbers indicate the percent of PCs tested at PC Pitstop where we detected that file running. Our detection works by file name, so some products may be listed multiple times if they consist of two or more files. To check for spyware, adware, unneeded programs, and many other common PC problems, try PC Pitstop Exterminate or our full system scan.

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P2P Programs: Popular and Perilous

It’s time for a confession. Many of us have peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software on our home PCs. Teenagers most often use P2P to search for and download the latest songs from their favorite artists and adults can find the songs of their youth. PC Pitstop research has shown that many of us have P2P programs such as Kazaa, Grokster, and Morpheus.

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Spyware Information Center

Since PC Pitstop opened in March 2000, we’ve tested and optimized more than a million computers. During that time, spyware has become a growing problem that threatens the stability and performance of your PC.
Our statistics indicate that more than 20% of PC’s have some sort of spyware active in memory, stealing CPU cycles, using up system resources, delivering unwanted advertising, and often creating system instability. Worse yet, spyware can threaten your privacy.

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Dirty Spyware Tricks

If you had a complete knowledge of what most spyware was doing to your system, you would never agree to install it. So how does it end up installed on so many PCs? Here are some of the dirty tricks that spyware uses to worm its way onto your system and stay there. (Not all spyware uses every technique.)

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Gator Information Center

The Gator Corporation makes several free applications that are distributed over the Internet. (On October 30, 2003, the company changed its name to Claria Corporation, but continues to operate in the same way it did before the name change.) Gator/Claria products are often delivered to end-users by being bundled with other applications or through “drive-by downloads” that pop up an ActiveX dialog and start the installation process if you say “Yes”.

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Direct Revenue: Greed Triumphs Over Decency

The recent lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against Direct Revenue provides an incredible amount of information about the sleazy activities of spyware and adware companies. In the past, we’ve pointed out that these companies were making lots of money from their invasive installations. We saw a glimpse of how much money was at stake when Claria filed to go public in 2004. In that filing, they revealed that they made about $100 million in 2003. However, that high-profile bid to go public was at the height of Claria’s power and profit; they quietly aborted the attempt in the fall of 2004 and just recently announced that they are getting out.

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Anti-Spyware Coalition Workshop

On February 8 and 9, I had the opportunity to participate in the Anti-Spyware Coalition Public Workshop. The event brought together representatives from the software industry and government, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Center for Democracy and Technology. In the past year the FTC has filed suit against several of the worst spyware offenders including Enternet Media, and the CDT recently filed an FTC complaint against 180Solutions for its practices. The Anti-Spyware Coalition has been working to craft clear definitions of acceptable software installation behavior.

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Taming the Wild West

Does everyone remember a few years ago the wacko guy that was blowing up mailboxes in the midwest? What I remember most of all is that suddenly everyone was afraid to open their mailboxes. The ramifications were huge. Millions of businesses rely on the US mail to deliver marketing materials, invoices, and other important communications. What would have happened if the US mail became unreliable?

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Sony and Spyware

When I was going to high school in the late 70’s, required reading for all English students was George Orwell’s 1984. I still remember reading about the overly structured life created by a highly bureaucratic government dubbed Big Brother. The book is essentially an anecdote for many of today’s problems related to governmental power versus the privacy and self determination of citizens such as ourselves.

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The Sony XCP Rootkit

In March 2005, Sony’s BMG music division began shipping music CDs that included a particularly strong form of digital rights management (DRM) software called XCP. These CDs play normally in a standard CD player, but when inserted into a PC they will attempt to install the DRM software onto the PC. The software limits the number of copies you can make and prevents transfer of the music to some music players such as the Apple iPod.

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FREE Protection vs Paid Protection from Spyware

There is no doubt that the lines are being drawn for a galactic cyber battle for control over your PC and your desktop. Spyware and adware companies make barrels of money installing their clandestine applications on your PC without your knowledge. Even for an advanced user, typically the most expedient solution is to install an anti spyware product. This article will take an in depth look at the various anti spyware solutions we have seen at PC Pitstop. During this discussion, the reader should refer to our anti spyware graph from our research section.

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Five Behaviors On Which Spyware Companies Prey

By Robert P. Lipschutz

Adware vendors, in their quest to infiltrate computers everywhere, benefit from confusion, a lack of user knowledge, and the realities of human nature. However, by using a combination of defensive strategies, you can lower the impact of adware on your computer. If you wish to enjoy the benefits of “free” Internet software, the primary carrier of adware, diligence is key.

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Spyware Podcast

Here’s a special shoutout to all the Pitstoppers in the Louisiana delta area. Our prayers and heart felt concerns are with you as you go through this incredible disaster. It is times like these when we truly realize how powerless we are to bend this world to our own human desires. I am sure that I am not alone, as I watched hour after hour of television, of the slow developing tragedy developing down in the bayou. The entire world felt the pain down south, but there was little that any of us could do but watch the events unfold.

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Google – Is Good Going Bad?

Google’s corporate reputation is incredibly good for a company of its size. Yet increasingly, Google is at the scene of Internet frauds and crimes. Our CEO Rob Cheng has described our fight with unscrupulous Google advertisers, and these problems have continued. In April, a site named FasterXP.com begun to advertise with Google AdWords, hawking a product that installed several adware and spyware applications. Since we use Google AdSense, those ads appeared on the PC Pitstop site; several users were taken in before we could block the ad.

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Gator’s Advertisers

Gator/Claria makes its money through advertising. In fact, in their SEC S1 filing (Note: 4 megabyte document!) they had revenues of over $100 million dollars! Many of those advertisers are not aware how users have been unwittingly drafted into Claria’s ad network via confusing tactics. The challenge for us is to get the message to these companies, and there is one group that can effectively deliver that message: customers and potential customers.

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Microsoft’s Image

About a year ago, I was helping a friend with some minor computer problems in his small business in Rio. He is a pretty smart guy, but his computer knowledge was lacking, and I wanted to help. As we sat down at the computer, we got the familiar XP error message that asked us whether we want to send the error details back to Microsoft. My neophyte friend hit “Do Not Send” immediately. When I asked why, he said “I don’t trust those bastards for anything and I would never send personal information over the internet to them.”

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Shameless Optimism

Take a look at our in-depth investigation of infected files distributed via BitTorrent P2P networks and you’ll start to understand how hopeless it is to expect the adware industry to police itself. In some cases I think the problem is that adware companies are truly naive about how they are being played by their affiliate networks. In others, it’s easy to see that the companies are working hard on their see-no-evil position to futher their own company goals. Whether they’re being played for suckers or silently participating in this nasty business, the outcome for consumers is the same.

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Tribal Fusion Advertising

Since early in 2002, we have been using an ad network called Tribal Fusion that serves banner and popup ads to our web site. And since 2002, I have hated these popup ads. Dave would regularly bother me to kill the popup ads, but we just could not afford to do it. Advertisers are willing to pay a significant premium for pop up ads, and at times they have been a significant portion of our revenues. Although XP Service Pack 2 initially provided a respite to users with its built-in popup blocker, nearly all the ad networks have found ways around popup blockers, which makes the popups even more annoying.

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What is spyware?

Over the past few years, a new class of software has emerged that’s up to no good. It goes by many names: spyware, adware, foistware, malware, eulaware, or even crapware. For simplicity we’ll just call them all spyware. Here are some of the “features” you get from spyware. Some spyware may only use one or two of these tactics, while others do quite a bit more.

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Chasing Children

PC Pitstop has mentioned the problem with spyware and kids before, but last week’s CNet spyware conference showed it isn’t going to be easy getting quick and meaningful action on this issue. It’s too bad. While some adware makers like WhenU seemed to be genuinely interested in changing their ways, others like Claria seemed intentionally evasive and unwilling to change any of their practices.

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Safe Surfing

Your kids are being targeted by spyware and other Internet-based threats. What can you do to help them surf safely?

In the first installment of this series, we showed how various Web sites and software publishers target your children and teenagers with threats such as spyware and adware. Now let’s look at what you can teach your kids about how to surf more safely in spite of the dangers. We’ll highlight some of the danger signs that can provide a tip that something is amiss, and show how to respond in a way that can protect your kids and your computer.

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Search Scout: No Merit Badge

Search Scout is one of the features of the Gator Advertising Information Network (GAIN). Gator has a partnership with Overture Services to display keyword-based text ads. The GAIN background software monitors the web pages you visit and the information you enter into search forms. If GAIN determines that you are doing a web search, or you are visiting sites that are associated with particular keywords, Search Scout kicks into action and displays Overture advertising or other results that match the keywords.

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Google and Spyware

On February 1, 2005, Google announced record revenues of $1.032 billion and profits of $303 million. Just like everyone else in the world, I was blown away. What a great company! The stock market seemed to agree since Google’s stock price hit a record high after their earnings announcement.

But there’s something that has been bothering me and many others in the antispyware community about the search engine juggernaut. And that’s Google’s ties to spyware.

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The Spyware Name Game

There’s a lot of confusion about exactly what the term “spyware” means and it seems that everyone has an angle. For example, some shady software vendors prominently label their programs “spyware-free” even though in fact they may contain undesirable software hitchhikers that most of us would classify as spyware. The companies justify these claims by using an extremely narrow definition of the term “spyware” — but in our minds, these claims wouldn’t be much different than a soda manufacturer’s proclaiming that its product is “sugar-free” and justifying this statement by arguing that the corn syrup in the soda just doesn’t fall under its definition of “sugar”.

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Are Your Children Safe from Spyware?

If you have kids, then the computer they use — which may also be the computer you use — is vulnerable to infestation by spyware. Spyware preys on the behavior of children, and teens in particular, by parking itself in the programs they download and on the sites they visit. Peer-to-peer music-swapping software, free online games, screen savers, song-lyrics sites are prime destinations for kids and many of them can carry an unwanted payload that can melt down a machine. But by teaching your kids appropriate behaviors and habits, and using some protective software, you can go a long way toward preventing spyware from gaining a foothold on your system.

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Follow the Money

When Dave and I were at the Spyware Conference in Washington DC, we were approached by Avi Nader, CEO of WhenU. Avi was upset because we were passing our WhenU research to various reporters at the conference. Avi cornered Dave and me and asked, “Why are you picking on us? Why don’t you focus on the guys doing identity theft, and other horrible deeds?” I have had a lot of time to think about this question and my answer. Avi, if you’re listening, here is my response.

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